The Royal Air Force has sent its Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning IIs on their first overseas deployment since their delivery to the first operational unit—No. 617 Squadron “Dambusters”—at RAF Marham during June and August 2018.
The RAF declared Initial Operating Capability (Land) about two weeks before the planned date of December 31, 2018. Exactly how the RAF has defined IOC was not stated, but it was acknowledged that it entailed having a certain number of aircraft ready to conduct day/night air interdiction, close air support, suppression of enemy air defenses, defensive counter air, and offensive counter air missions.
Six F-35Bs were deployed from Marham in Norfolk on May 21. The squadron operates three aircraft from LRIP Lot 8 and six from LRIP Lot 9, and it was the latter aircraft, with Block 3F software, that were deployed. They were flown to RAF Akrotiri, on the island of Cyprus, from where they are expected to spend six weeks operating as part of Exercise Lightning Dawn.
Two separate waves, each comprising three aircraft, departed Marham, with each trio supported by an Airbus A330 MRRT Voyager tanker/transport from No. 10 Squadron at RAF Brize Norton. The Voyagers transited alongside the F-35Bs, refueling them several times en route and carrying squadron personnel and some support equipment.
Though there has been speculation that the deployment would allow UK and U.S. F-35s to fly together during operational missions against Daesh, Group Captain Ian Townsend, the station commander of RAF Marham, said that Exercise Lightning Dawn was a training exercise. He dismissed suggestions that the aircraft might participate in the UK’s air operations against Daesh in Syria and Iraq as part of Operation Shader, saying that there were no plans for the F-35Bs to drop live weapons (even for training) during their deployment in Cyprus.
Instead, Lightning Dawn will allow the RAF to examine all aspects of deploying and operating the F-35B from a new location, including logistics, maintenance, and sustainment, and will provide invaluable experience before the type’s planned first operational carrier deployment later this year. Townsend pointed out that the training exercise would allow personnel from both the RAF and the Royal Navy to gain vital experience in maintaining and flying the aircraft in an unfamiliar environment. While the Lightning Force is owned and operated by the RAF, it is jointly manned by both Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel.
“Today’s departure reflects a tremendously collegiate effort from the RAF, Royal Navy, and industrial partners, who are now focused on ensuring the deployment is as successful as the preparation phase,” Townsend said. “It’s just over 76 years since 617 Squadron formed to conduct groundbreaking operations [referring to the 1943 Dams raid], they are once again called upon to take a capability forwards for the first time. The exercise in Akrotiri will prove our ability to operate F-35s away from Marham and will allow us to learn the lessons of operating the air system while on deployment.”